Keemun tea – a winey, dark chocolate tinted delight

Closeup of keemun tea leaves

I’ve written about my love of tea before, but a couple of posts don’t show how central to my day to day existence tea actually is. I always have a selection of leaves and bags ready to suit every situation, every mood.

And Keemun, more than the wonderful Ippodo sencha, more even than my standard builders’ bag from Clipper, is the one I can’t do without. It’s a black leaf tea from Anhui province in China, where it was grown by a failed civil servant called Yu Quianchen in 1875, and is packed full of aromas and flavours.

It’s a distinctive, almost winey tea with bittersweet elements of the best dark chocolate, a light tannic bitterness and warm spicy sandalwood notes. There are hints of orange and just the merest edge of cloves, juniper and allspice – like a drop of mulled wine. All of which make it a wonderful drink to gently brew and relax with after a rich meal. Or even to cut a strong chocolate dessert.

There’s a whole ritual to making tea like this. And it’s something I lose myself in time and again. Like some superstitious sportsman who always ties their laces in a particular way, I find it helps me get into the zone before doing anything like writing a blog post, or just wind down from a busy day.

Moving through the motions of boiling the water, adding leaves to the pot and making the the tea. Those three or four minutes are time when I’m not thinking of anything else. Like a buffer for my mind against the thousands of clamouring thoughts.

Keemun tea in a cup

This ritual is particularly important at the moment, when I am between houses, staying in spare rooms and in houses that aren’t my own. Which is why, when we packed up our kitchen for the last time I had to take a bag with me on my peripatetic wanderings around London.

With all this obsession with tea you’d think that I’d been raised on a builders’ brew instead milk and baby food. But I came to tea reletively late when I was in my teens (about the same time I really started to enjoy wine). And of all places it was in France.

During the summer holiday we would pile into my Dad’s Peugeot, four or five of us, and motor from Cornwall to the South of France over a couple of days. And we’d stay in a gite, visiting a network of newly retired teachers who all seemed to relocate from England to the Dordogne.

And it was with one of these that I finally tried what I had always considered a bitter brew. But they gave a finely prepared cup of black Darjeeling with a spoonful of brown sugar. The floral scent rising in the steam. I was hooked. And with the zeal of a convert I’ve chased down the best brews since.

Brewing a perfect Keemun

Keemun tea leaves

To really get the best of this you need to get your water to about 80oC before pouring. And this is where the ritual comes in. I boil a kettle of filtered water (the hard water of London leaves a most unattractive scum on top of the tea) and pour it straight from the kettle into a cold jug. I then pour the water from that jug into the tea pot.

Every time you decant the water in that way, from a bit of a height (five or six inches) it loses about 10oC. And you don’t burn the leaves which can bring an angry bitterness to your brew.

Leave it to brew for about four or five minutes, remove the leaves (you can use them again later) and pour out your tea. Then sit down, raise the cup to your nose, inhale and relax.

I got mine from Camellia World of Teas in London, but it should be available from any good tea shop.

11 Responses to “Keemun tea – a winey, dark chocolate tinted delight”

  1. Kathryn

    Sounds amazing and intriguing. For a tea lover with simple tastes this might be a peaceful and delicious addition to making an afternoon relaxing ritual. Thanks!

  2. The Tea Stylist

    Keemun or Qimen is truly one of my favourites. I can understand that you would want to have it near by when you are feeling transient. It is such a ‘grounding’ tea with it’s deep maltiness. It’s my comfort tea.
    Lovely photographs.

  3. The Grubworm

    @Thursday – you should definitely give it a try if you can find some. It is an intriguing tea, more taste and depth than most.

    @Kathryn – it would be a good addition to any relaxation ritual. In fact brewing any loose leaf tea is!

    @The Tea Stylist – it is grounding, i had never really associated the earthy maltiness of it all as a reason for that. Amazing how taste can trigger a whole-body relaxation.

  4. Mr Noodles

    Great post – I particularly like the backstory – but I wonder how does one fail as a civil servant?

    Have you tried Oolong tea? My favourite kind is the ‘Tea of the Iron Goddess’ (Tieguanyin 铁观音 in Mandarin). I thoroughly recommend it.

  5. shuhan

    I’m a big tea drinker, but less fussy about preparing it right heh. My parents are anal. my mum has this traditional routine of preparing tea. only with tea leaves, and with boiling hot water, first scald the whole pot with it, so it doesnt start out cold. then scald the tea leaves, discard. then scald again, and leave to immerse for 5 min before drinking.that’s for chinese oolong tea though, e.g. the tieguanyin as mentioned by Mr Noodles, not this keemun tea for sure! I am absolutely fascinated by the sound of this tea though–hint of chocolate and wine in TEA? sounds brilliant.

  6. The Grubworm

    @Mr Noodles – I love oolong tea, and Iron Goddess of Mercy (is that the same one) is my current favourite. In fact I have a caddy of it on my desk (in transit) right now…

    @Shuhan – Ooooh, interesting about scalding the tea leaves first. I hear that’s how the Moroccans make their mint and green tea as well. I will have to give it a go. I wonder if it removes some of the bitterness?

  7. shuhan

    I don’t know if it’s to remove the bitterness, my mum says it’s to “clean” it. hmm.

  8. Tom

    I really wish I had a picture of the ceramic cup and built in filter I got from MingCha in HK as I think you would appreciate it. A very elegant way to drink tea. I’ll try and take a picture of it later on Instagram. Your post has inspired me :)

  9. The Grubworm

    @Tom – oooh, yes please. I do love an elegant way to drink tea. My favourite teapot/cup combo is a simple white bone china set from Ippudo in Kyoto. Beautiful and serene. However, the one I use the most is a transparent mug that Leluu bought me – perfect size and shape.

  10. Tom

    Whoops I have completely forgotten to take that picture. Will do tonight :/

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